We talk to Camouflaj's Ryan Payton about longer dev cycles, the episodic model and the race to zero

Republique: The four-year mobile game

Republique, the episode stealth adventure for smartphones and tablets, may have first grabbed the spotlight when its Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded in 2012, but for Camouflaj founder Ryan Payton this has been a project four years in the making.

With the third episode released on the App Store today, and the Android version due next week, Payton (right) has reached the halfway point of game that he hopes will shake up the mobile games space. Using his experience working on titles such as Halo and Metal Gear Solid, he hopes to create a high-quality title that matches console gamers’ expecations but is also specifically geared towards smart devices and their unique capabilities.

In a time when many mobile games are taking from concept to cash cow in a matter of months, we asked the veteran developer about why he has poured years of his life into Republique – and why more developers should do the same.

In Republique, you’ve spent four years developing a mobile title? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a long development cycle?

I can mostly think of disadvantages. [Laughs] The problem is the game is probably a little too ambitious. We have between 20 and 30 people working at any time, and that’s a really high burn rate per month for the company so most of our revenue just goes to paying the salaries and not paying back debt or developing any kind of new games alongside. So we’re putting all of our eggs in one basket, which is incredibly risky.

I guess one advantage is that with each new episode, we get feedback from players that allows us to then integrate updates into the next episodes. It feels like a continuous process, an ongoing conversation we’re having with gamers. That said, we know where the story’s going and the ending hasn’t changed – it’s just a matter of getting there.

All my focus, every single day, is to create content. One of the challenges of episodic games is that a lot of people wait until there’s more episodes before they jump in, because the gap among episodes – whether it’s The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, or especially Kentucky Route Zero – can be so long that you forget what happens.

We’re making progress, we’re making better episodes with each release, but my main focus is making sure that episode five is the absolute greatest ever, and that people hear about how amazing it is so they want to play the first four. That’s my objective.

If and when you did another project for mobile, would you spend years on it, or do you think there’s a reason most mobile games have relatively short development cycles?

I think there’s a lot of good reasons for having shorter development times on mobile, for sure. But I like that we’re so different and unique in this space, and I think it oftentimes pays off.

For example, we were really nervous when we shipped the game in December because Apple told us if you came out on December 19th, you were competing with thousands of apps on that day to get featured. But when we saw we got editor’s choice worldwide and we beat all these other companies that were vying for it – some of which were huge companies, who had been holding their games back for six months waiting to get featured on that day – it made me think that it was all worth it. And maybe our weird emphasis on quality and taking the time top polish was worth it.

I imagine that for our next project – as long as our business partners are okay with it – we’ll invest a lot of time in trying to create something different and unique that does take a long time to put together. Because narrative just does, I think, and I’m mostly interested in narrative experiences.

We’re making better episodes with each release, but I want episode five to be the absolute greatest ever, so people hear about how amazing it is and want to play the first four. That’s my objective.

As much as mobile developers focus on shorter, casual games for mobile, there’s a growing number of console-quality titles on smartphones and tablets. Do you think more studios working on those type of games will spend longer on their development cycles?

From my perspective, I’m seeing that most companies don’t see the advantages of doing high-quality, time intensive development for mobile games. I think they’re seeing that the games making the most money are ones you can develop with just a small team, that are 2D and have cutesy graphics, and I think that’s where the market is going today.

The tide could shift very quickly, as it tends to do, and that’s part of the reason myself and the team are working so hard to finish this game, because we want to blaze this path for other developers and show them that there is a marketplace here.

Whenever I talk about our model and what we do, I always point to Telltale as the guiding light. I have a lot of respect for those guys: because of them, we came up with the same episodic model and pricing. They’ve been such an inspiration, but the thing that bothers me, the thing I worry about is their success is predicated on the fact their IP is one of the most TV shows in the world. I’m hoping The Wolf Among Us will have long-term success as well, it’s a much lesser known IP, and I’m hoping Republique can also blaze this path and show developers it’s worth investing time because there is money to be made with these more high-quality experiences.

But I think the jury’s still out, and we need to put out more episodes to see if there’s long-term success for the game.

While there’s a growing number of console-quality titles on smart devices, console ports tend to be a little hit and miss. Do you think there are certain qualities and aspects of console games that translate well to these platforms?

The thing I’d like to focus our studio on in the long-term is doubling down on this idea of one-touch controls. We took two genres I love: stealth action and survival horror. You can see all of the influences of the first Metal Gear Solid and original Resident Evil in the game, right? We’ve spent years developing the idea of playing this type of game with just one finger. I want to do that with other genres, too: these 32-bit era genres that I love so much.

That said, I don’t think every single console genre can work on smartphones and tablets. For example, shooters. I know people have tried and failed with them on mobile, and I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but I just don’t know how you do that with an elegant solution for a touchscreen interface.

I think there are some good genres, and there are other ones I’d like to attempt. I don’t want to stay in stealth for the rest of my life. So I’m hoping we have the opportunity to make another totally different style of game moving forward.

Telltale is the guiding light for the episodic model. They’ve been such an inspiration, but the thing that bothers me is their success is predicated on the fact their IP is one of the most TV shows in the world. I’m hoping The Wolf Among Us will have long-term success as well, it’s a much lesser known IP.

So given your belief in one-touch systems, do you think developers aren’t making enough use of platforms such as the Wii U? Smart devices and even PlayStation Vita support multi-touch so Nintendo’s console was criticised for not doing the same, but do you think studios can make quality games based around a one-touch interface?

I felt like that was more a technical spec war that gamers like to have. For me, one-touch is enough because that’s how consumers are interacting with their products. We specifically built the inputs of Republique based on what gestures people are used to doing on their devices as opposed to teaching them new ones. So we had this really interesting philosophy about figuring out how to support various features.

When I was working on Metal Gear or Halo, we’d sit down and try to work out how players would control a new feature or ability, and we’d assign it to a button that we felt was the right decision. But what I found with mobile early on was that people have these pre-established gestures in mind. They would come to the game, they would try certain things, and the game wouldn’t support it because I wanted them to do this other thing I’d already determined.

But they didn’t know that, and I don’t want to re-teach them, so we ended up doing something different: we’d ask them to attack a guard, watch how they tried to do it, and then matched everything to what came to them naturally. It was a totally opposite way of thinking about inputs and it was fascinating.

Would you encourage more mobile studios to develop like that? Go by player expectations rather than theirs?

More and less. Again, looking at where most mobile games are heading now, the majority are just glorified click games and there’s not much thought put into inputs and interesting gameplay – it’s more about how you hook players into spending money, and that’s really unfortunate. So much of people’s time and thought is now about how we monetise, instead of how we create these really compelling gameplay experiences that could positively entertain players.

Is monetisation not something Camouflaj spends too much time thinking about then?

Obviously we think about it, because we have a business to run, right? But we always come at it from an angle of what’s fair. I have mixed emotions about it: I feel like The Walking Dead, the Telltale model of $5 per episode and $15 for the season pass, is incredibly fair for the amount of content we’re giving and the high quality of that content. But on the other hand, I get really frustrated when I see one-star reviews of our game when people say it should be free, and why am I charging them for this.

I think the race to zero that’s going on is incredibly sad, and I really wish it wasn’t the case.

$5 per episode and $15 for the season pass is incredibly fair for the amount of content we’re giving and the high quality of that content. I get really frustrated when I see one-star reviews of our game when people say it should be free – the race to zero that’s going on is incredibly sad.

Do you think there’s any way we can recover from this ‘race to zero’, or is it a one-way transition?

I’m a natural optimist. I believe that monetisation is going to find a path that’s better than where we are right now, but I don’t think it’s going to look like it before.

Just the other day, my girlfriend dusted off her Japanese 3DS to see what had come out since she last played it. I thought she might be interested in Bravely Default, so she looked it up. It was 4,000 yen – which is about $40 – and she said she’d never pay that much for a game. But when we were living in Tokyo, we were spending 5,000 yen per DS and 3DS game. She’s become so accustomed to playing games on her iPad, that $40 is ridiculous to her.

I feel terrible in the sense that high quality games like that are probably losing a lot of sales in this race to zero, but that said, I think we’re going to figure out ways to get people to pay a reasonable amount of money for a good amount of content. I don’t know what that model looks like though. I’m really interested in streaming and subscriptions, so I’d be interested to see what people can do with that.

One of the big challenges with our game is that it’s very easy to pirate because it’s just binary, it’s not a service. And, especially in Asia, potential publishing partners love the game but are worried that 90 per cent of people that play it are going to do so for free. So it isn’t until we get into the future conversation of streaming, where if you never have to download Republique and it’s super convenient, why wouldn’t that work for us, or for The Wolf Among Us?

If you had the chance to have any licence to do an episodic series on?

I’d love to do a very character-based franchise, because I feel that’s where things are going. If you look at TV shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, people become so invested in these characters because they meet them so quickly and often – as opposed to console video game characters like Nathan Drake and Master Chief that you only see every two or three years.

We’ve actually been approached about a pretty good IP to see if we could create a great episodic experience out of it. I wish I could say what it is, but it’s definitely on my list.

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